After the plague in which 24,000 perished on account of Israel’s whoredoms and idolatry with Moab, (Nu. 25.), Moses and Eleazar, the high priest, received from the Lord the command to number the people from 20 years old and upward “throughout their fathers’ house” (Nu. 26). This was to be the second numbering, the first having taken place some 39 years previous in the beginning of the second year of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness.
In treating this subject I arrange my materials under the two points:
1) The numbering as such;
2) Its purpose.
The method of numbering to be used is set forth by the command: “Take the sum of the congregation of the children of Israel. . . . throughout their father’s house. . .” For a complete statement of the method we must turn to: “by their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward. . . .”
The families were the independent clans, founded by the immediate sons of the twelve patriarchs. This is plain from the language employed in Nu. 26, for example at verse 5: “Reuben, the eldest son of Israel: the children of Reuben: Hanoch, of whom cometh the family of the Hanochites: Pallu, the family of the Pallunites: of Hezron, the family of the Hezronites: of Carmi, the family of the Carmites. These are the families of the Reubenites.” Thus as there were born to Reuben four sons, he appears in the account as branching off into as many families. The fathers’ houses were plainly the subdivisions of the families and were thus founded by the grand- and great-grandsons, etc. of the twelve patriarchs. The data are wanting for a clear analysis of the subdivisions of the congregation as represented by the terms family and fathers’ houses. But this much is reasonably clear: The former was the grand subdivision of the tribe and the latter were the subdivisions of the former.
The two terms generations and fathers’ houses are of identical signification. Jointly they denote the ancestral lineages of the individuals to be numbered as extending through the founders of the clans within the tribes to the twelve patriarchs.
Thus the task to which Moses was once more commanded to address himself consisted in requiring of the Israelite from twenty years old and upward that each give his name, his house, his family, and his tribe. What the imposition of such a task reveals is that there was on hand a complete history of family pedigrees; and the genealogical tables of the first book of the Chronicles, of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and of Matthew’s gospel show that through the centuries this history was kept up to date. For what reasons we shall see presently.
Reuben, so the numbering reveals, subdivides into four families and numbers 43,780. Dan, with only one family numbers 64,400. This has led to the conjecture that there may have been families that, for some reason, were not enumerated in this census, especially so in the case of Dan. This tribe, however, was formed of but one family at its starting point (). But Simeon at this point numbered six families ( ), while in the account of the second numbering he appears as branching into five. Obed’s family—the one not reckoned—may have become extinct or it may have attached itself to a more powerful house within the tribe.
The account also brings out that the grandsons of Pallus, the immediate son of Reuben, were the rebels Dathan and Aibiram. With reference to these names the account goes back to the judgment that overtook these insurgents. The earth swallowed them up “together with Korah” the prime mover of the rebellion. This fearful end, however, is not to be identified with the fire-judgment upon the 250 offerers of incense. The exception of the children of Korah, who took no part in the rebellion, and did not therefore perish, is also mentioned ().
Simeon, five families, numbers 22,200. Nemuel of Nu. 26 is the Jemuel of Gen. 46; and Zohar of Gen. is the Zerah of Nu. The two names last mentioned are of the same import (Zerah, the rising of the sun; Zohar, candor, splendor).
Gad, seven families, numbers 40,500. Ozni is called Egbon at.
Judah. Two of Judah’s five sons—Er and Onan—had perished in Canaan. The five families, of which two were founded by grandsons, offspring of Pharez, number 76,000.
Issachar. Four families, numbered 64,300. Jashub is named Job at. Both names signify to return.
Joseph-Manasseh. Micbar was Manasseh’s only son; and the only son of Michar was Gilead, the founder of the family of the Gileadites, As Gilead had six sons, this family subdivided into as many houses, which numbered 52,700 Israelitish males qualified for military service. One of these houses was the Shechemites, founded by Shechem, the fourth son of Gilead. Mention is also made of the fact that to Hepher, the sixth son of Gilead, was born a son, Zelophehad by name, who begat daughters to the number of five but no sons. These daughters again appear in the following chapter in connection with the division of the land.
Joseph-Ephraim. Three families and a fourth house founded by Ephraim’s grandson Eran, a direct offspring of Shuthelah, Ephraim’s firstborn, numbers 32,500. In the account Eran’s house is listed as a family, the reason being that he was the only son.
The genealogical history of the first book of the Chronicles () tells of a tragic event in the life of the patriarch Ephraim not recorded elsewhere in the Scriptures and consisting in the slaying of Ezer and Elad, either sons or near descendants of Ephraim. These sons, it must be supposed, made a warlike expedition from Goshen into the land of the Philistines for plunder, and were slain by “the men of Gath that were born in that land. . . .because they came down to take away their cattle.” This can scarcely have taken place before the descent into Egypt, as Ephraim was born in Egypt, (Gen. 46:20). “And Ephraim their father mourned many days, and his brethren came to comfort him.” These words cannot be taken figuratively as applying to the whole tribe of Ephraim, for the following verse asserts: “And when he went in to his wife, she conceived and bare a son, and he called his name Beriah, because it went evil with his house.” The going in of Ephraim to his wife, can only be taken literally; and as there is no indication that another Ephraim is meant, the narrative must be to the effect that the old patriarch Ephraim begat a son Beriah, after those two sons were slain by the Gathites. Beriah’s name, however, occurs neither in the tables of Genesis nor in those of the book of Numbers. The explanation may be that this son had died.
Benjamin.—Five families and two houses (listed as families in the text) founded by grandsons, numbered 45,600. Some of these descendants are listed as grandsons of Benjamin here and as sons in the account of Genesis. It shows that the term son in Scripture does not necessarily determine nearness of relation. Also, Genesis lists three more names of sons than are found in these tables. This may be explained by the probability that some of those named in Genesis had died childless or without founding a distinct family. Finally, Shuphan and Huphan are Nuppin and Huppin in the Genesis record.
Dan.—One son Shusham (Husham in Genesis 46), whose family, divided into smaller families, numbered 64,400.
Ashur.—Five families, two from grandsons, numbered 53,400. There was one daughter Sarah. Ishua ofis wanting here, probably because as in other cases he had founded no family.
Naphtali.—Four families, numbered 45,400.
The total number of persons is 601,730. A comparison of the totals here and in chap. 1 shows a small loss of 1820. The people that had grown so rapidly in Egypt, had scarcely held its own through the wilderness with its sins and judgments. The loss would have been much greater, however, if seven tribes—Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Ashur—had not held more than their own. A comparison of the totals for these tribes, here and in chap 1 shows a joint gain of 59,500 as compared with a loss of 60,020 sustained by the others. The heaviest loser was Simeon. His decrease amounted to 37,100. The judgments of God that had ravaged the nation may have taken their largest toll from this tribe. There is indication that at least in the most recent apostasy—the whoredoms with Moab—Simeon was the chief offender. The greatest gain was made by the tribe of Manasseh. The tables show an increase of 20,500.
The Levites occupy little space in the tables of Nu. 26, the reason being that this last enumeration is mainly in reference to the inheritance, and the Levites were not to have any inheritance or possession. Three chief families and five houses numbered 23,000.
The text athas occasioned some difficulty: “And the name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi, whom her mother bare to Levi in Egypt: and she bare unto Amram Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister.” Jochebed could not have been the direct offspring of Levi, nor could Amram have been Levi’s grandson. If so, Amram did the forbidden thing by marrying his own aunt. Generations intervened between Levi and Jocohebed. She was not his daughter in the strict sense.
The account of this numbering closes with the remark: “These are they that were numbered by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who numbered the children of Israel in the plain of Moab by Jordan near Jericho. But among these there was not a man of them whom Moses and Aaron the priest numbered, when they numbered the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, They shall surely die in the wilderness. And there was not left a man of them save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun” (26:63-65). Thus Jehovah’s sentence had been fully executed; the old generation, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, had all been wasted by death; i.e. those only who were more than twenty years of age when the earlier numbering took place. The entire generation of warriors had passed away before Israel crossed the Zered. The fact of the carrying out of the penal sentence is mentioned here, when the new generation had just been numbered and assembled with a view to warring God’s warfare for the possession of the Holy Land.
2. The purpose and objective of this numbering.
The purpose was not merely to ascertain the magnitude of the fighting force. Such knowledge could serve no purpose other than that of stimulating trust in the arm of flesh. But Israel must understand that no king is saved by the multitude of an host: that a mighty man is not delivered by much strength; but that his help comes from the sanctuary of Jehovah.
Because King David was unmindful of this, he ordered Israel numbered.
Regard must be had once more to the method used: “by their generation, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names.” It is clear from this language that the near purpose of the enumeration was to bring every Israelites of twenty years old and above under the necessity of giving his pedigree, his ancestral line, and thus of revealing to which tribe, family, and house he belonged. The authorities in the nation—Moses and his assistants—had need of such information as they did forty years previous at the beginning of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. Then the twelve tribes had to be divided into four divisions in the order of East, South, West and North, with the tabernacle in the center. The four leading tribes were Judah, Reuben, Ephraim and Dan. To the East was Judah in conjunction with Issachar and Zebulon. To Reuben in the South was joined Simeon and Gad. On the West Manasseh and Benjamin were encamped under the leadership of Ephraim. To the North was Dan in conjunction with Ashur and Naphtali. The formation was that of a square with an inner square, the east of which was occupied by Moses, Aaron and his sons at the door of the tabernacle. The Kahathites on the South, the Gershonites on the West, and the Merirites on the North completed this inner square. In this structure, organization, each tribe and each chief family, house, and individual Israelite in the tribe occupied his own place. And there was besides an order of the march determined by the order of the encampment. Now such an organization, it must be plain, could not have been brought into being without a knowledge of the pedigree of each Israelite. The obtaining of this knowledge with a view to the bringing into being of this peculiar social structure had formed the purpose of the first enumeration.
The period of the sojourn in the wilderness has come to an end. The nation in the new generation has been purified through two judgments, especially by the last great visitation as by fire; the entire older generation has passed away. The people of Israel are about to possess their inheritance; and the individual Israelites are once more required to declare their pedigree. And again the definite purpose is the organization of the people not in the wilderness but now in the land of Canaan; the bringing into being in Canaan of another social structure, a holy commonwealth, in which each tribe, and each family house, and individual Israelite in the tribe would have his very own place and inheritance assigned to him by Jehovah Himself. That this is the primary purpose to be achieved also by this second numbering is proven by the circumstance that in the sacred narrative the matter of the division of the land immediately follows the numerical tables. Having recorded in his account the grand total of persons, the narrator goes on to say: “And the Lord spake unto Moses saying, Unto these the land shall be divided for an inheritance according to the number of names. To many thou shalt give the more inheritance, and to few thou shalt give the less inheritance; to everyone shall his inheritance be given according to those that were numbered of him. Notwithstanding the land shall be divided by lot: according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. According to the lot shall the possession thereof be divided between many and few” ().
Here then the enumeration relates to the settlement in Canaan. Without the knowledge of the people’s pedigrees, this instruction could not have been carried out, the social structure here demanded could not have been.
These instructions then plainly bring out the purpose and objective of this numbering. The purpose was firstly to compel the Israelite to declare his pedigree, show that he was a true son of Abraham, in whom the nation was chosen and blessed, and thus make clear that he belonged to Israel and had a part in its work and blessing. Secondly, the purpose was to ascertain who were Ephraimites and who were Benjamites etc. and how many there were of each tribe in order to enable the rulers in Israel to divide the land of Canaan among its rightful heirs and to divide it equitably according to the standard, “To many thou shalt give the more inheritance, and to few thou shalt give the less inheritance.” And the grand objective of the enumeration was the bringing into being of God’s house—that commonwealth of Jehovah in which each of the numbered should have his allotted place and in which Jehovah should be all and in all,
It is plain that in this enumeration we have to do with a type of the church universal as the object of God’s election. This church is the twelve tribes in the book of Revelation, forty four thousand strong, servants of God, all of them sealed in their foreheads, and with their names written in God’s book of life, thus a numbered host, twelve thousand from each tribe,. But in his vision John saw also a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, kindreds, and people, and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes and palms in their hands. This is the church in glory, the true house of God, the heavenly and imperishable commonwealth of Israel, in which each of His numbered servants has his allotted place where he securely dwells—the city of God, the new Jerusalem, founded on righteousness through the atonement of Christ, a city that hath no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it; for the glory of God doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof, . It is the home of the numbered ones, of those chosen and blessed in Christ.